great minds on music: an interview with chuck porter

Armed with a laptop and a digital recorder, Uli Reese, President of iV2, traveled the world in pursuit of some of the top names in the business of advertising. We’ve edited and compiled his conversations with these innovative thinkers into a series we’ve dubbed “Great Minds on Music.”

“‘There is no learning without emotion’, and one of the easiest ways to evoke emotion is with music” – Chuck Porter


Reese: Let’s start with a question I ask everyone who takes part in this virtual round table: how does a big idea feel? Do you recognise it immediately when it arrives?

Porter: In my experience it varies dramatically. Someone might come into the room and say: “What would happen if Burger King stopped selling Whoppers?” and instantly you say, “Wow, that’s an interesting way of talking about the brand – that could be big.” Other ideas percolate for a while. We had an idea, also for Burger King, called “The Subservient Chicken”. It was a guy in a chicken suit you could control online by typing instructions. “Chicken the way you like it,” was the inspiration behind the campaign. It was one of a few ideas we batted around for while. But it went massively viral – it was huge. I wish they were all instant “wow”, but in my experience they’re not. Sometimes you come up with an idea you think is going to be gigantic, and the response is just so-so. Other things seem kind of interesting, but they explode.

Reese: Let’s move on the big question. How important is music in your work?

Porter: Oh, it’s huge. Music creates emotion. On the wall in my office there’s a quote from Plato from about 350 BC which is: “There is no learning without emotion”, and one of the easiest ways to evoke emotion is with music. Scent is actually easier, but it’s hard to get your audience to smell something. Getting them to listen to music is the next best thing. No matter who you are or where you live, I guarantee I can play a piece of music to you that will take you back to when you were 15 years old.

Reese: What about music briefs? I know it can be frustrating when creatives talk about music with composers and sound designers. Are there methods that have worked well for you?

Porter: The shortcut I use is “it’s going to feel like…”. This should “feel like” The Beach Boys, or this should “feel like” Beethoven. If you can come up with a piece of music that evokes the atmosphere you’re trying to create, that’s the easiest kind of shorthand.

Reese: Do you use mood boards or specific audio references, or do you just talk about the emotion you want to evoke?

Porter: When you’re talking to a composer, to be able to express the mood you’re trying to create, giving them some examples of pieces of music you both know is a good place to start. You might end up somewhere very different, bit it’s a good starting point. Of course, some composers are such absolute naturals that you don’t even need to tell them anything: they read a script and they already “hear” it.

Reese: What is a perfect composer for you?

Porter: In my view the perfect composer is one who thinks exactly like I do. (Laughs.) I compare it to film editors. Over a year you work with about 50 film editors, and one of them instantly gets what you’re talking about; they seem to connect with you. Some composers are the same: you can give them a very cursory description and they just instantly hit it.

Reese: How do you evaluate the effectiveness of music? Is there a process?

Porter: There is a process, and I think revolves around the audience and the product. I’m old, so the music I love is unlikely to be what an audience of 19 year olds relate to. You need to find talented people who are in the demographic that you’re talking to and have them evaluate it. That’s the only way I know how to do it.

Reese: There shouldn’t be more formal testing? Something less subjective?

Porter: I trust talented people more than I trust testing. The amount of testing you need to do depends on your confidence in the creative team. If you believe your creative team are going to create something wonderful and magical, you don’t need testing.

Reese: Should you be able to listen to a brand? Intel, Nokia and Coca-Cola have distinctive sounds. Should a brand be audible?

Porter: That’s a really interesting question. If you can play me the first seven notes of a piece of music and it brings a brand to mind, that’s probably a good thing for the brand. But particularly among audiences now, surprise is a wonderful weapon. If a brand can surprise me with what they sound like, rather than me knowing in advance, there’s huge value in that…It depends on the brand and the situation. I can certainly see why a musical identity might be useful. It goes back to the old days of jingles. Even if you didn’t love them, you could remember them.

Reese: Most brands have a visual style guides. Should they have a audio style guides, too?

Porter: You’re right in saying that most brands have a graphic guide, a way of saying “this is what we look like”. But I’m not necessarily in favour of that. There are advantages to it, but I think maybe surprise is the new consistency. Take Burton Snowboards: they change their logo every month. According to classic marketing, that’s the world’s worst idea, but people embrace it. MTV started that – the principles of their onscreen identity remained the same, but it was constantly changing. So I think a whole generation has grown up with this idea that brands can change, can astonish you. It’s also a harder process to make an audio style guide. With a graphic guide, you print a book. With music you you’d need a disc, a recording of some kind. But the idea is really interesting.

Reese: Do you see a change in how seriously we take music and its impact on consumer buying decisions? After all, in a traditional TV spot the music is almost an afterthought. It’s tagged on at the end.

Porter: That’s the traditional way, true. But it’s not always the case. There are examples of wonderful work that has been created by doing it the other way around: taking a famous song like the Beatles’ “Revolution” and putting images to it. In a similar way, not so long ago, filmmakers began to use existing songs rather than an original soundtrack to underpin the emption of a movie. One great song can make a movie. At my agency, for certain types of products, music is pre-eminent. We pay a lot of attention to it. In any case, I think that when you pay more attention to the music you end up with better work.

Reese: Music is a great unifier. The Beatles, for example, transcend demographics. Young, old, male, female…the music speaks to everyone. I think that’s why the right music can transform a good piece of work into something great.

Porter: This conversation has reignited in my mind the fact that we need to pay more attention to that. You know, the very first big award I won when I was a kid – 23 or 24 – was a slide presentation, still pictures of a couple on a beach. It was actually kind of corny, but the music was great: “Memories,” by Barbara Streisand. I got the award – but it should probably have gone to Streisand.

Chuck and Uli connected at the Frankfurt ADC where Chuck was one of the featured speakers. Chuck Porter is the Chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky (CP+B), one of the most awarded advertising agencies in the world. CP+B employs approximately 1,000 people, with offices in Miami, Boulder, Los Angeles, London and Gothenburg, Sweden. The agency has been profiled in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, BusinessWeek, Forbes, and Fast Company, and in 2009, CP+B was named Agency of the Year by Advertising Age, Adweek and Creativity magazine. Chuck is also chief strategist for MDC Partners, where he was instrumental in recreating the company as a different kind of holding company, an alternative equity partner for innovative and entrepreneurial creative agencies, and a thought leader in the industry. He plays a major role in the acquisition of senior talent, in the identification of potential partners, and in MDC Partners’ strategic process. He brings insight and wisdom from within the industry to help lead the continued success of MDC Partners.

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